Healthy Habits for Great Communication – Defeating the Four Horsemen

In previous posts, I have mentioned the concept of the four horsemen in this post, I want to discuss them in greater detail and provide a few quick strategies for defeating them.  A shout out to John and Julie Gottman, I love their work and training of other therapists! In their research, they asked two primary questions. First, “what makes a satisfying marriage?” and second, “what predicts divorce?” Over more than forty years of collecting and analyzing data, watching couples interact, counseling them, and keeping track of them, they found six primary predictors of divorce; “harsh startups, the four horsemen, flooding, body language, failed repair attempts, and bad memories”. In the previous post, I suggested the soften startup as the strategy for dealing with difficult conversations. What exactly are the four horsemen of the apocalypse? The Gottman’s identify them as “criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling”. Even the most successful relationships have conflict and almost all relationships show engagement with some of these issues.  However, they don’t appear as often in master’s of relationship and when they do appear these couples engage in repair attempts. “It is not the appearance of conflict, but rather how it’s managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship” (Gottman, 2010). This is a really important point to understand. I often see couples who, when asked for an update on their progress, report they didn’t have any arguments. While for many couples this is a huge improvement, I remind them that not having conflict is not the goal. The goal is learning how to manage conflict and repair negative incidents when they occur. Let’s look briefly at the four horsemen.

The Four Horsemen

Criticism. Criticism refers to making negative judgments or proclamations about your partner in extreme, absolute terms, like “never” and always” For example, “You never pick up after yourself!” or, “You are always late!”  It is important to understand that there is a difference between criticism and complaining. In fact, the antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. How do you do this? One alternative is to remember the soften startup rules “I feel…about what…I need”.  There isn’t anything wrong with voicing concerns and complaints in a relationship, but try to do so in a way that focuses on your own feelings rather than attacking your partner.

Contempt. Contempt is a more destructive form of criticism that involves treating your partner with disrespect, disgust, condescension, or ridicule. Of all of the horsemen, this is the most detrimental to relationships and in Gottman’s research was the highest predictor of divorce, in part, because the person using it comes from a relative position of superiority. Contempt can grow over time when a person focuses on the qualities they dislike in their partner and builds up these qualities in their mind. One issue I see often in relationships is the use of sarcasm to mask contempt. I think contempt comes not only derives from feeling superior but also by focusing on the negatives of the relationship. So one way to defeat this horseman is to focus on the positive qualities of your partner and the relationship.

Defensiveness. Defensiveness shows up when people feel criticized or attacked; it involves making excuses or explanation as attempts to avoid taking responsibility.  Sometimes it manifests as deflecting by blaming your partner. For example, “if you wouldn’t act like that, I wouldn’t be so mad all the time!”  Shifting blame or deflecting only exacerbates conflict by making your partner feel attacked and defensive. Defensiveness communicates to your partner that you aren’t really listening or taking their concerns seriously. One way to avoid defensiveness is to take the time to hear your partner out and take responsibility when appropriate. Couples most often find themselves in a negative communication cycle of criticism and defensiveness until they engage the final horseman. 

Stonewalling. Stonewalling is putting up a metaphorical wall between you and your partner by withdrawing, shutting down, and physically and emotionally distancing yourself from your partner.  Sometimes people simply walk away from their partner without saying a word, spending the next several days or weeks ignoring them. I have seen partners simply stare into spouse and often hear reports of a partner who stonewalls by watching television or engaging in something else. Verbally stonewalling is often enacted with statements like, “you’re right!” or “fine!”. People will say almost anything to get out of having to argue with their partner. What do you do here?  The best solution here is to get out of the conflict but do it in a particular way. The strategy is to learn how to take a break. When I teach this strategy in session, many couples return to report a conflict and then telling their partner, “Dr. Tanner said you need to take a break when you get like this!” Well….that’s not exactly how you take a break.  Remember the other concepts we have introduced for this series, the most important, be responsible for yourself. So to take a break means you need a break. Politely inform your partner that you need a break from the conversation. Both of you politely agree to come back to the conversation when you have had a chance to calm down.

In the next post for this series, I will talk a little more about the science behind stonewalling and some more strategies for overcoming it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *